Women share harrowing stories of violent conflict with UN-AU delegation in South Sudan
Nyamile Malual Jiech walked with her children for five days and nights through violent clashes to reach the safety of the United Nations protection site in Bentiu. Her husband was killed in the fierce clashes in the Unity region.
She described her horror journey to a high-level delegation of African Union and United Nations officials who have travelled from New York to the conflict zone to hear first-hand the challenges faced by the women of South Sudan.
“Women are being raped all the time and you will find that those who are raping women are always younger than the age of our children, so sometimes you find two or three men lining up against one lady,” said Nyamile Malual Jiech. “Those are the big challenges for us. We appreciate your visit and pray that you will bring us peace in the country.”
Her friend, Deborah Zhot Kier, lost a child in the conflict.
Despite the tragedy, she finally feels safe in the camp protected by UN peacekeepers and says that her hope now is for peace, so that her remaining children have the opportunity to go to school, find jobs, and achieve their dreams.
“I appreciate you coming to visit us here. Our plea is to please support our peace so that peace becomes a reality and we continue to enjoy our lives,” she said.
Clutching Deborah’s hand as she listened to her story in a dark, humid tukul in the protection camp was the Co-Chair of AU FemWise, Dr. Specioza Wandira Kazibwe. She reassured the women that the signing of a peace agreement and subsequent reduction in the conflict provided an opportunity to empower women to ensure they have a role to play in building peace in the country.
“Men alone can never make the situation of humanity better,” she said. “It is only when women are participating in a meaningful way that we can bring about change.”
The chief of United Nations peacekeeping operations told the women that they could count on the UN to do its best to ensure peace would return to the country after five years of civil war.
“The women want to have their voices heard and be part of the efforts to bring peace back to their country and this is a message that we are taking with us,” said the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix. “We are convinced that peace will not be made and, indeed, will not be sustainable if the population of this country, particularly the women, are not part of the process. If they are not involved at every level, it will not be durable peace.”
Women from the protection site held a special meeting with their counterparts from the town of Bentiu for the first time since conflict erupted. It was a sign of unity and a shared desire to participate in the implementation of the revitalized peace agreement.
They told the delegation that they have suffered because of the alarming rates of sexual violence. Many have also been forced to raise their children alone while their husbands fought and died in the violent struggle for power.
The Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka assured the women that she stood in solidarity with them.
“We are not here as saviours,” she said. “Change will only come when we work together with the people of South Sudan because you will change your own reality.”
The African Union is promising concrete support for the peace process, including the deployment of 100 young women mediators across the country and new projects to improve educational and job opportunities.
“I think that now the peace process has been signed, we have to reach out to these women and children and first give them the hope that, not only, will we do everything to bring them back to their normal lives in their own communities but also that justice will be done,” said African Union Commissioner for Peace and Security, Ambassador Smail Chergui. “This is really the beginning of the healing for the people of South Sudan.”
The delegation emphasized the important role that women will play in influencing, not only the political process, but also future security arrangements.
“Now that we are here, and the agreement has been signed and there is a real reduction in the conflict, we want to seize the opportunity to get you empowered to make sure that your children are eating, to make sure that you have a voice in everything that happens in the country,” said Dr. Specioza Wandira Kazibwe.
Her support was warmly welcomed by the women who have experienced many broken promises of peace and yet remain hopeful.
“I appreciate you coming to visit us here. Our plea is to please support our peace so that peace becomes a reality and we continue to enjoy our lives,” said Deborah Zhot Kier.